The United Stories of American Reportage: A New Photojournalism Collective – by ViewFind

This post was originally published on ViewFind.

Here’s a story you’ve surely heard by now: in the brave new world of online media, native advertising and infinite content, legacy magazines and newspapers have had to drastically reconsider the way they tell stories. In the great digital shakeup, many publications no longer have the resources to provide the same kind of comprehensive small town coverage of American culture. Instead, reporting has shifted either to attention-grabbing international news or traffic-driving clickbait. This schism creates an inverted bell curve of sorts, with a void right in the middle of the national dialog. Perhaps nothing demonstrated this greater than the 2016 presidential election, where it seemed that analysts and reporters suddenly had no understanding of their own country.

To mitigate this dissonance, Pete Marovich and a stellar group of five visual journalists founded American Reportage, a collection of storytellers dedicated to the common goal of chronicling the events, peoples, places and culture of the United States.

ViewFind is proud to be an official partner of American Reportage, and to celebrate their launch, we sat down with the team to discuss politics, personal projects and how to tell an honest story in an era of distrust.

Big Top Dreams - Pete Marovich

Big Top Dreams — Pete Marovich

ViewFind: What was the inspiration for American Reportage?

Pete Marovich: It was a couple things. With the tightening of newspaper and magazine budgets and available print space at a premium, there are a limited number of places to have your work viewed or funded, especially long-form storytelling.

I also noticed that so many photographers want to go overseas to cover important stories instead of looking in their own backyard. I can’t help but wonder if part of that motivation is drawn from the fact that usually it is foreign stories that garner the most attention and awards in the premier photography competitions. For example, all seven of this year’s POYi awards in the News Picture Story category were shot in other countries. I agree that those stories need to be told, but there are important issues facing our country as well.

The Old Order — Pete Marovich

The Old Order — Pete Marovich

At American Reportage, we will attempt to cover in-depth the important issues facing the United States as well celebrate the everyday lives of Americans. Through partnerships with media outlets such as ViewFind and creative funding, we will be able to investigate stories at our own pace and not simply parachute in for a day or two.

The Politics of Resentment — Justin Merriman

The Politics of Resentment — Justin Merriman

ViewFind: How does our current political climate influence your collective?

Pete Marovich: The election gave everybody a wake-up call about how we may not understand the American fabric like we thought we did. Our photographers are spread all across the country. We all have different interests — health care, gun control, the economy, the steel towns around Pittsburgh — we’re interested in the overlooked and underreported. These stories affect everyone.

Portrait of Santa Rosa — Adria Malcolm

Portrait of Santa Rosa — Adria Malcolm

ViewFind: What brings you to the group?

Adria Malcolm: Right away, I really liked the mission and goal for the collective. How do we access those small but vital arenas of American culture and get them onto a platform that shows our society as a whole?

ViewFind: What do you bring to the table of this diverse group of storytellers?

Adria Malcolm: Everyone else has been staff at a newspaper. I’m the youngest at American Reportage and the bulk of my work has been done in the small towns of New Mexico. I was able to cut my teeth as a journalist and pursue stories a little differently. I am able to build a lot of trust in tight-knit communities and I’ve always loved the intimacy of that kind of work. Especially in this hyper-political and very fragile time, I want to know: who are the people that call this place home? It’s a large goal to tackle but if we’re able to create discourse in the smallest way it’s a goal worth pursuing.

Portrait of Santa Rosa — Adria Malcolm

Portrait of Santa Rosa — Adria Malcolm

ViewFind: As someone with lots of international journalism experience, what’s the difference in approaching a story at home versus abroad?

Justin Merriman: More than anything, you need time to get into a story. American Reportage allows us to really delve into these stories in a more intensive way. Instead of parachute journalism, we’re telling the stories of our towns, communities, neighbors. The problem I’ve had with international work is the stories rarely feel finished, they’re just done when you have to go home. Working in our own backyards, we have the opportunity to delve deeper. I grew up here. I know the history. I know the intricacies of these stories.

The Border — Justin Merriman

The Border — Justin Merriman

ViewFind: What kinds of projects are you interested in covering?

Justin Merriman: The issues that Americans face in tiny coal towns are the same issues that we’re facing across the whole country: healthcare, loss of jobs, the opioid epidemic. People are trying to hold onto their patch of America. Now more than ever, we need to tell the story of what’s happening in our country. This election caught a lot of people off guard but for those of us in the Rust Belt, here in Pennsylvania, in Ohio, West Virginia — we weren’t that surprised. For decades, millions of Americans have felt as though they weren’t being represented. There’s a deep lack of understanding right now and our job is to decipher this information and get it out there. We need to turn the cameras inward and share that with the rest of the world.

Coal Town — Jeff Swensen

Coal Town — Jeff Swensen

ViewFind: How does your background in freelancing and newspapers influence your current approach to storytelling?

Jeff Swensen: I’ve been freelancing for the past 17 years. Before that, I was at a newspaper for eight years. 10,000 assignments later, I started thinking: what does it all mean? How can I make the next twenty years comprehensive and still break up the day to day? In the past month or so, I’ve only been in Pittsburgh eight days out of 40. As a freelancer, the one thing that I’ve felt I’m missing is that shared experience you get from a collective. It’s really nice to know you have a group of people that have your back.

Clairton — Jeff Swensen

Clairton — Jeff Swensen

ViewFind: How will you utilize the American Reportage platform?

Jeff Swensen: What fascinates me most about people —whether you’re in San Francisco or rural Kentucky — is not so much the cultural differences but the things that bring us together. Very often, we like to think that we’re showing something different. Like, ‘Hey, look at what I found. Let me shed some light on this shiny new object,’ like a treasure hunt. The reality is photography can serve as a truth-ordinated look to show us the things that make us all the same. If I could do anything with my photos, it would be to show that the people in my region are more or less the same. Let’s cooperate and get past the petty political stuff. At the end of the day, the more I work the more I realize I don’t know shit — and I keep being fascinated by what I don’t understand.

The Landscape of Hunger Relief — Brian Plonka

The Landscape of Hunger Relief — Brian Plonka

ViewFind: Under the larger umbrella of American stories, how do you choose what to cover?

Brian Plonka: My theory is I don’t really have to travel; everything I need for a story is right here within this 300-mile radius of Spokane. The more I live here, the more I absorb what this community is all about. I have a wife who is a photographer — she’s better than me, honestly, with the thoughtfulness and care she puts in. I’m so fortunate to have her and she drives me to be better. We’ve been doing this together for thirty years.

American Getaway — Brian Plonka

American Getaway — Brian Plonka

ViewFind: How has your style evolved over time?

Brian Plonka: A lot of times when you’re younger and shooting pictures, you’re overlooking all the little steps it took to get that shot. I remember I was in the very first Eddie Adams Workshop and the instructor said, “Maybe when you’re 50 you’ll start taking pictures that reflect who you are as a photographer.” Which, of course, is the most frustrating thing to hear as a young photographer but it’s true. I’m 50 now and I feel brand new again. I’m like a wide-eyed guy and everything I see in the world is a potential story. It’s led to a lot of personal reflection. I have to really ask, “Who am I?” Well, I’m the son of a steelworker, a storyteller, I’ve dealt with drugs, alcohol, eating disorders. This is who I am and I have to wrap my head around these things. I’m extremely nervous and excited to wipe the slate clean and push myself to the next level.

New Orleans Levee — Kathleen Flynn/© Tampa Bay Times

New Orleans Levee — Kathleen Flynn/© Tampa Bay Times

ViewFind: What’s your relationship like with the group?

Kathleen Flynn: Justin Merriman and I attended the Eddie Adams workshop in 2002. And Brian Plonka’s work has inspired me since I was a young photojournalist. Everyone is working on fascinating projects. I think we will all push one another to make our work stronger, and more worthy of the subjects we are covering. So many of us have newspaper backgrounds and, I think, as a result, have come to really appreciate being part of a team. There’s a lot of potential for what we can do as a team, especially when focusing on long-term social issues in the states. Throughout my career, I have focused on giving a voice to a variety of marginalized populations, including coverage of immigration issues, veteran matters, and the growing tension between law enforcement and local communities. I covered Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and followed the lives of survivors on the Gulf Coast on and off for a decade. I plan to continue that work. Everyone in this collective shares a passion for in-depth, visual storytelling and its power to create human understanding.

A Mother's Day Second Line — Kathleen Flynn/© Tampa Bay Times

A Mother’s Day Second Line — Kathleen Flynn/© Tampa Bay Times

ViewFind: What would you like the average reader to take away from American Reportage?

Kathleen Flynn: Clearly, there is a massive breakdown in our society when it comes to discerning fact from fiction. In order for us to survive and thrive as a nation, we must learn how to understand each other. Issues are rarely as black and white as our culture tends to make them. We are complex and nuanced human beings and the issues that affect us are complex and nuanced as well. It takes time to explore those issues. It takes truth tellers — and practicing the art of truth telling is at the core of our mission.

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